Update: See here for an updated analysis.
A few days ago Dan Drezner issued a challenge: what explains why countries decide to attend or not attend the Nobel peace prize ceremony in honor of Li Xiaobo? Well, I just taught my last class so below is my quick attempt. A first simple hypothesis is that this is all about geopolitics. Governments that tend to side with China on other geopolitical issues may also choose to do so on this one. A second thesis is that this is all about domestic politics. Governments from countries that respect freedom of speech domestically may be more inclined to reject Chinese pressure either because they wish to signal support to these values or because they would face harsh criticism from their publics if they would cave to Chinese pressure.
The figure below captures these two factors. On the horizontal axis, we have press freedom as measured by Freedom House (a low score indicates more press freedom, data is from 2008 as this is what I had available). The vertical axis represents the extent to which countries voted with China in the UN General Assembly during the 64th session (2009/2010). A score of 1 means full agreement, a score of .5 implies that a country agreed with China half the time. Countries that are reputed not attend are represented by red crosses. I found various sources reporting a total of 21 countries that had indicated their intention to remain absent. The countries that are expected to attend are those from the remaining embassies in Norway.
It should be immediately obvious that press freedom and UN voting behavior are correlated. Yet, it appears that press freedom is the stronger correlate of the decision to attend. Among the governments that almost always vote with China in the UN General Assembly, those that have strong press freedom domestically are much more likely to attend. The Ukraine is the only country among the bloc of states that less frequently vote with China that will not attend. It is also the country with the worst press freedom. In a regression with both variables, UN voting becomes an insignificant covariate of the decision to attend. Press freedom alone explains 91% of attendance choices.
This suggests, then, that those governments that can expect the most pushback from their domestic press corps are most likely to attend the ceremony. I thus expect that Argentina, Serbia, and the Philipines will come under the most scrutiny for their decisions not to attend. It may still be worth it for them, as China is known to retaliate against countries that hand them symbolic defeats, such as allowing the Dalai Lama to visit.
One may protest that I have not controlled for many other possible covariates, especially investment and trade relationships. Indeed I haven’t. But the data (in Excel format) is here so you can try for yourself and report back if you find something interesting.